First Class, or Coach?

Film Projector & ScreenTeachers who also coach - or coaches who also teach ‘real’ subjects - get a bad rap. When you see a teacher on TV or in movies who's being played for laughs, it's almost always a coach (and a history teacher at that). I've several times been at the front of the room leading brief introductions at the beginning of a workshop when some well-intentioned dear lady will give her name, and where she's from, and lament that besides herself and maybe the new teacher next door, her department is all coaches, so...

Obviously we're supposed to know the rest, and nod sympathetically. Except for the third of the room who coach various things.

So… awkward. Often the phrase "Some of the Best Teachers I Know are Coaches” makes an appearance. Next time I’ll have to ask it how “Some of my Best Friends are Black People” is doing these days – it’s been too long.

Is this fair? Is this one of those things with enough truth to sustain itself, although no one wants to come right out and say it? Is this yet another flaw in the public education system, begging to be addressed by a Gates Foundation grant or some sort of higher-standards legislation?

I haven't done a formal study or anything (hey, some of us work for a living), but I've worked with and around a wide variety of coaches in a rather large district for 15 years now. I've been nominally "in charge" of a number of them as Lead Instructional Motivated Curriculum Alignment and Assessment Facilitator. (We haven’t used simple names for things since the late 90’s – no one actually knows what any given room or title actually indicates anymore, so we wander around confused much of the time.)

I've led professional development in various guises across multiple states over the past ten years, and inevitably a good chunk of the teachers I meet either are or know coaches. It always comes up. We talk. I learn. Often, pastry trays are involved.

Remember the Titans CoachingI don't coach myself, nor am I qualified to do so, but I have seen Remember the Titans about 19 times. I thus consider myself supremely qualified to make some confident statements about coaches who teach, and teachers who coach (and come to think of it, I'm pretty sure these are the same thing). I'll number them to lend artificial authority to each statement.

(1) Coaches coach for the same reasons teachers teach. Most public school educators signed up because at some point they wanted to help kids. They wanted to make a positive difference in some way by getting involved.  We're idealists at heart - or were, before the acronyms caught up with us and stomped the last bit of hope out of our calling. Teachers who are tired of being stereotyped as unable to get 'real jobs' or assumed to have gone into education because they simply weren't qualified to do anything else should stop doing the same thing to the folks who teach next door to them in the morning and coach in the afternoon.

(2) Successful coaches are usually successful teachers. The time demands of coaching may limit the extent to which they labor over their grading or lesson plans after hours, but that's true of many good classroom teachers with 'real lives' outside the classroom. Some may even lean a little heavily on more orthodox lessons and strategies. But few effective coaches are 'dead weight' in the classroom. The skill set and mindset of the two are simply too closely aligned. And the guy who is faking his way through 1st - 4th periods with worksheets and VHS documentaries is probably not accomplishing much on the field, court, or ice either.

Coach & Student(3) Coaches are evaluated publicly and often by the performance of students who may or may not be demonstrating what they've actually been  taught. Annoyed by those good ol' boys who are obviously given classes during the day simply to fill the slot and justify their position? Frustrated at how impossible it is to push a coach with mediocre classroom skills aside to make room for a 'real' teacher? If your tenure and paycheck (the one used to buy your kids clothes and food and such) relied largely on how things go Friday night, I suspect you'd be easily distracted from that flipped-model inquiry-based cross-curricular collaborative journey you were trying to scaffold. You might even make a few calls to your staff and revisit some plays or other logistics. This is not a ‘coach’ problem – this is a structuring problem.

(4) Coaches work long hours for pitiful stipends. You remember when you sat down that one afternoon and started trying to figure out how much you, as a highly qualified classroom teacher, actually make per hour? Coaches learn not to do that math - especially that 'how many kids do I have multiplied by what babysitters charge' version that's popular from time to time. Many of them are keeping much longer hours for much less per than you or I would tolerate if it were our Lunch Duty stipend or Safety Training Coordinator compensation.

(5) Thank god for kids in athletics. They may or may not be my shining academic stars, but discipline problems they are not. An email or phone call to their coach solves almost any problem – academics, attendance, or attitude. I wish I could require ALL of my students to be involved in extra-curriculars.

Coach Pointing(6) Coaches will mess with you by playing to your preconceptions. I see it all the time in workshops - the self-deprecating humor, the inside jokes. Maybe this is merely a ploy to lower expectations (especially on those required in-district days), but I suspect it's usually just amusing to watch the rest of us be all smug without admitting it to ourselves.

(7) Coaches understand vertical teaming better than we do. They’re also far more likely to spend hours evaluating and analyzing their own performance and that of their kids with game film, statistics, or other unforgiving rubrics. The focus on individual responsibility within effective group work is a staple of most team sports - they don't even work otherwise - and is applied to Those of the Shorts & Whistle just as consistently as to those in their care. And 'grit' - that most recent breakthrough suggesting that giving up every time something is difficult is NOT a great life plan? Yeah, old news on the court, field, or ice.

I’m not suggesting we ignore legitimate problems. I am suggesting that there are times that, instead of pushing our coaches to attend more PD, we should be asking them to lead some of it. We’d probably all be better off.

Pouty Coach

Related Post: "Extra" Curriculars


As a former sports editor at a couple of newspapers (now in my 1st year teaching 8th grade ELA), I know that coaches, especially at the high school level, work incredibly long hours (especially during their particular season). They deal not just with their athletes at practice, but also with scheduling games, rounding up officials for said games, dealing with equipment issues, making sure game day runs smoothly and, in some cases and especially for football, basketball and baseball, dealing with media interviews. Coaching is a full-time job by itself.


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